Excerpts from One-Third Off – Losing weight in 1921

One-Third Off is a book by Irwin S. Cobb. Written in 1921. A hilarious account of the author’s weight loss. The author documented his journey of reducing One-Third of his body weight. The author also references Samuel Blythe, whose book is equally hilarious and will be seen around in this corner of the internet sometime. So keep an eye on it if you like to read random stuff, and historical non-fiction.

Enter Irwin. S. Cobb in One-Third Off.

Extra! Extra! All About The Great Reduction!

The way I look at this thing is this way: If something happens to you and by writing about it you can make a bit of money and at the same time be a benefactor to the race, then why not? Does not the philanthropic aspect of the proposition more than balance off the mercenary side? I hold that it does, or at least that it should, in the estimation of all fair-minded persons. It is to this class that I particularly address myself.

Unfair-minded persons are advised to take warning and stop right here with the contemporary paragraph. That which follows in this little volume is not for them.

An even stronger motive impels me. In hereinafter setting forth at length and in detail the steps taken by me in making myself thin, or, let us say, thinner, I am patterning after the tasteful and benevolent examples of some of the most illustrious ex-fat men of letters in our country. Take Samuel G. Blythe now. Mr. Blythe is the present international bant-weight champion. There was a time, though, when he was what the world is pleased to call over-sized. In writing on several occasions, and always entertainingly and helpfully, upon the subject of the methods employed by him to reduce himself to his current proportions I hold that he had the right idea about it.

Standing up and being able to look at your toes.

Getting fat is a fault; except when caused by the disease known as obesity, it is a bad habit. Getting thin and at the same time retaining one’s health is a virtue. Never does the reductionist feel quite so virtuous as when for the first time, perhaps in decades, he can stand straight up and look straight down and behold the tips of his toes. His virtue is all the more pleasant to him because it recalls a reformation on his part and because it has called for self-denial. I started to say that it had called for mortification of the flesh, but I shan’t. Despite the contrary opinions of the early fathers of the church, I hold that the mortification of the flesh is really based upon the flesh itself, where there is too much of it for beauty and grace, not merely upon the process employed in getting rid of it.

Ask any fat man—or better still, any formerly fat man—if I am not correct. But do not ask a fat woman unless, as in the case of possible fire at a theater, you already have looked about you and chosen the nearest exit. Taken as a sex, women are more likely to be touchy upon this detail where it applies to themselves than men are.

I have a notion that probably the late Lucrezia Borgia did not start feeding her house guests on those deep-dish poison pies with which her name historically is associated until after she grew sensitive about the way folks dropping in at the Borgia home for a visit were sizing up her proportions on the bias, so to speak. And I attribute the development of the less pleasant side of Cleopatra’s disposition—keeping asps around the house and stabbing the bearers of unpleasant tidings with daggers and feeding people to the crocodiles and all that sort of thing—to the period when she found her anklets binding uncomfortably and along toward half past ten o’clock of an evening was seized by a well-nigh uncontrollable longing to excuse herself from the company and run upstairs and take off her jeweled stomacher and things and slip into something loose.

But upon this subject men are less inclined to be fussy, and by the same token more inclined, on having accomplished a cure, to take a justifiable pride in it and to brag publicly about it. As I stated a moment ago, I claim Mr. Blythe viewed the matter in a proper and commendable light when he took pen in hand to describe more or less at length his reduction processes. So, too, did that other notable of the literary world, Mr. Vance Thompson. Mr. Thompson would be the last one to deny that once upon a time he undeniably was large. The first time I ever saw him—it was in Paris some years ago, and he was walking away from me and had his back to me and was wearing a box coat—I thought for a moment they were taking a tractor across town. All that, however, belongs to the past. Just so soon as Mr. Thompson had worked out a system of dieting and by personal application had proved its success he wrote the volume Eat and Grow Thin, embodying therein his experiences, his course of treatment and his advice to former fellow sufferers. So you see in saying now what I mean to say I do but follow in the mouth-prints of the famous.

Grand Canyon and Royal Gorge

Besides, when I got fat I capitalized my fatness in the printed word. I told how it felt to be fat. I described how natural it was for a fat man to feel like the Grand Cañon before dinner and like the Royal Gorge afterward.

I told how, if he wedged himself into a telephone booth and said, “64 Broad,” persons overhearing him were not sure whether he was asking Central for a number or telling a tailor what his waist measurements were.

I told how deeply it distressed him as he walked along, larding the earth as he passed, to hear bystanders making ribald comments about the inadvisability of trying to move bank vaults through the streets in the daytime. And now that, after fifteen years of fatness, I am getting thin again—glory be!—wherein, I ask, is the impropriety in furnishing the particulars for publication; the more especially since my own tale, I fondly trust, may make helpful telling for some of my fellow-creatures? When you can offer a boon to humanity and at the same time be paid for it the dual advantage is not to be decried.


Physicians apparently knew the importance of nutrition even in 1921.

The author joins the gym and tries sauna and ends up gaining 10 lbs. He then goes and consults 2 of his Physician friends. I saved that part of the book for later. But I would like to mention it was a 25$ fee to see the physician first time, and every subsequent visit was $10.


Back to Irwin S. Cobb in One-Third Off again.

“Well, doc,” I said upon hearing this for the second time in language which already had a familiar sound—”well, all that you say being true, what then?”

“For one thing, more exercise.”

“But I take plenty of exercise now.”

“For example, what?”

“For example, golf.”

“How often do you play golf?”

“Well, not so very often, as the real golf-bug or caddie’s worm would measure the thing—say, on an average of once a week in the golfing season. But I take so many swings at the ball before hitting it that I figure I get more exercise out of the game than do those who play oftener but take only about one wallop at the pill in driving off. And when I drive into the deep grass, as is my wont, my work with the niblick would make you think of somebody bailing out a sinking boat. My bunker exercises are frequently what you might call violent. And in the fall of the year I do a lot of tramping about in the woods with a gun. I might add that on a hunting trip I can walk many a skinny person into a state of total exhaustion.” I stated this last pridefully.

You are registering the preliminary warnings (of Obesity)

“All right for that, then,” he said. “We’ll concede that you get an abundance of exercise. Then there is another thing you should do, and of the two this is by far the more essential—you should go on a diet.”

Right there I turned mentally rebellious. I wanted to reduce my bulk, but I did not want to reduce my provender. I offered counter-arguments in defense. I pointed but that for perhaps five years past my weight practically had been stationary. Also I called attention to the fact that I no longer ate so heavily as once I had. Not that I wished actually to decry my appetite. It had been a good friend to me and not for worlds would I slander it. I have a sincere conviction that age cannot wither nor custom stale my infinite gastric juices. Never, I trust, will there come a time when I shan’t relish my victuals or when I’ll feel disinclined to chase the last fugitive bite around and around the plate until I overtake it. But I presented the claim, which was quite true, that I was not the consumer, measured by volume, I once had been. Perhaps my freighter spaces, with passing years, had grown less expansive or less accommodating or something.

You are now registering the preliminary warnings.

“Piffle!” he rejoined. “One hoarse raucous piffle and three sharp decisive puffs for your arguments! I tell you that what ails you is this: You are now registering, the preliminary warnings of obesity. The danger is not actually here yet; but for you Nature already has set the danger signals. There’s a red light on the switch for one I. Cobb. You are due before a great while for a head-end collision with your own health. You can take my advice or you can let it alone. That’s entirely up to you. Only don’t blame me if you come back here someday all telescoped up amidships.

“And please don’t consume time which is reasonably valuable to me, however lightly you may regard it, by telling me now about slim men who eat more than you do and yet keep their figures. The woods are full of them; also the owl wagons. The difference between such men as those you have described and such men as you is that they were made to be thin men and to keep on being thin men regardless of their food consumption, and that your sort are naturally predisposed to fatness. You can’t judge their cases by yours any more than you can judge the blood-sweating behemoth of Holy Writ by the plans and specifications of the humble earwig.

One cannot eat his cake and have it

“One man’s meat is another man’s poison; that’s a true saying. And here’s another saying—one cannot eat his cake and have it, too. But that’s an error so far as you are concerned. The trouble with you is that when you eat your cake you still have it—in layers of fat. If you want to get rid of the layers you’ll have to cut out the cake, or most of it, anyway. Must I make you a diagram, or is this plain enough for your understanding?”

It was—abundantly. But I still had one more bright little idea waiting in the second-line trenches. I called up the reserves.

“Ahem!” I said. “Well now, old man, how about trying some of these electrical treatments or these chemicalized baths or these remedies I see advertised? I was reading only the other day where one successful operator promised on his word of honor to take off flesh for anybody, no matter who it was, without interfering with that person’s table habits and customs.”

My friend can be very plain-spoken when the spirit moves him.

“Say, listen to me,” he snapped, “or better still, you’d better write down what I’m about to say and stick it in your hat where you can find it and consult it when your mind begins wandering again. Those special mechanical devices to reduce fat people are contrived for the benefit of men and lazy women who are too slothful to take exercise or else too besotted in the matter of food indulgence to face the alternative of dieting. They may not do any harm—properly operated, they probably do not—but, at best, I would regard them as being merely temporary expedients specially devised as first aid to the incurably lazy.

“And as for pills and boluses and bottled goods guaranteed to reduce your weight, and as for all these patented treatments and proprietary preparations which you see boosted in the papers—bah! Either they are harmless mixtures, in which event they’ll probably do you no serious injury, but will certainly do you no real good; or else they contain drugs which, taken to excess, may cut you down in size, but have the added drawback of very probably cutting short your life.

“No, sir-ree! For you it’s dieting, now and from now on. You may be able to relax your diet in time, but you can never altogether forego it. Give us this day our daily diet—that’s your proper prayer. And you’d better start praying pretty soon, too!”

“All right, doc,” I said resignedly. “You’ve practically converted me. I can’t say I’m happy over the prospect, but if you say so I’m prepared to become a true believer. But since, between us, we’re about to take all the joy out of life, let’s be thorough. What must I do to be saved? Give me the horrible details right here. I might as well hear the worst at one session.”

On rapid vs. gradual weight loss.

“I’m no dietitian,” he said. “I don’t profess to be one. That’s not my line—my line is diagnostic. Of course, I could lay down a few broad general rules for your guidance—any experienced practitioner could do that—but to get the best returns you should consult a diet specialist. However, in parting—I have several paying guests waiting for me and we are now about to part—I will throw in one more bit of advice without charge. No matter what suggestions you may get from any quarter, I would urge you not to follow any banting formula so rigorous as to take off your superfluous flesh very rapidly. Take your time about it. If you live as long as both of us hope you may you’ll have plenty of time. There’s no rush, so go at it gradually. Be regular about it, but don’t be too ambitious at the outset. Don’t try to turn yourself into a tricky sprite in two weeks. For a fat man too abruptly to strip the flesh off his bones I regard as dangerous. It weakens him and depletes his powers of resistance and makes him fair game for any stray microbe which may be cruising about looking for a place to set up housekeeping.”

At first blush it might appear to the lay mind that a germ would scarcely care to pick a bone when it had fat meat to feed on, but my own recollections bore out my friend’s statements. I remembered a man of my acquaintance, an enormously fleshy and unwieldy man, who, fearing apoplexy, undertook a radical scheme of banting. He lost fifty pounds in three months, so apoplexy did not get him, but pneumonia did with great suddenness. He was sick only three days. Nobody suspected that he was seriously ill until the third day, when suddenly he just hauled off and died.

So I promised to have a care against seeking to hurry myself right out of the flounder class and right into the smelt division.


On Alcohol and Weight Gain

How a fellow does run on when he gets on the subject which is uppermost in the minds of the American people this year! All I intended to say, when I started off on this tack, a few pages back, was that –

If I absolutely and completely cut out all alcoholic stimulants no doubt I should be reducing my weight much faster than is the case at this writing.

To-day practically all the members in good standing of the Order of Friendly Sons of the Boiled Spinach—I mean the dietetic sharps—agree that he or she who is banting will be well-advised to drink not at all. For the most part they do not make a moral issue of this detail. Some of them refuse to concede that a teetotaler is necessarily healthier or happier or more useful to the world than the moderate imbiber is. They merely point out that whiskies and beers are, for the majority of humans, fattening things and should therefore be eliminated from the diet of those wishful to lose their superfluous adipose tissue. Here, again, they disagree with their professional forebears. The experts of the preceding generations, being mainly Englishmen and Germans, could not conceive of living without drinking. Some advocated wines, some ales, some a mixture of both with an occasional measure of spirits added for the sake of digestion. But among the dependable dietetic authorities of the present day there appears to be no wide range of argument on this point. They pretty generally agree that even a casual indulgence in beverages is not indicated for those who seek to reduce. I am sure they are right. But as I remarked just now, what can you do when you are encompassed about by the bottle-toting, sop-it-up-behind-the-door custom which has sprung up since Prohibition was slipped over on us by the Anti-Saloon League?

I confess that I have not the strength of character to swim, almost alone, against the social current. So I partake of the occasional snort and to that extent stand a self-admitted apologist for an offense which no true reductionist should commit.

But I claim that otherwise—that in so far as the solid foodstuffs are concerned—I have, for my own individual case, exactly the right idea about it.


** If you are still reading you are going to love this other similar post On Exercise | Diet, and Health written about the same time, in 1918. Check it out.


And now back to Irwin S. Cobb’s journey of weight loss in One-Third Off …

Three Cheers for Lithesome Grace Regained!

My advice to the man or the woman who is in the same fix I was in is to go and do likewise, with variations to suit the individual temperament. It means self-denial but self-denial persevered in is a virtue, and virtue he will find—or she will—not alone is its own reward but a number of additional rewards as well. Let my late fellow sufferer likewise patronize the gymnasium and the steam room and the cold plunge if he so chooses. If he desires to have automatic pores, all right. As for me, I recall what the Good Book says about the pores which ye have always with ye, and I decline to worry about the present uncultured state of mine. Let him try the electric rollers and the electric baths, if such be his bent; no doubt they have their value. And by all means let him consult a qualified physician if he fears either that he is overdoing or underdoing his banting. Personally, though, I am satisfied with the plan I tried out, of being my own private test tube.

I claim that I have better information touching on what sustenance I need than any outsider ever can hope to have unless he breaks into me surgically. I claim that a series of rational experiments should tell any rational human how much he needs to eat and what he needs to eat in order to reduce his bulk and yet keep his powers and his bodily vigor unimpaired. I am not speaking now, understand me, of those unfortunates with whom obesity is a disease, but of those who owe their grossness of outline to gluttony. Lacking vital statistics on the subject, I nevertheless dare assert that these latter constitute fully 90 per cent of those among the American people who are distinctly and uncomfortably and frequently unhealthily fat.

Remains but one fly in the ointment. Since Tony Sarg is going to illustrate this treatise, then Tony must revise the old working plans. For my figure is not so much pro as once it was. It is more con, if you get my meaning—the profile curves in toward, instead of being, as formerly, so noticeably from.

Still, I should worry about the troubles of an artist, even though a friend. I weighed myself this morning. Three months ago, when I set out to reduce my belt line and my collar size, I snatched the beam down her-smack at two hundred and thirty-six pounds, stripped. This morning I weighed exactly one hundred and ninety-seven, including amalgam fillings and the rights of translation into foreign languages, including the Scandinavian. One hundred and eighty-five pounds is my ultimate aim. Howsoever, I may keep right on when I attain that figure and justify the title of this book by taking a full one third off. In either event, though, I shall know exactly where I am going and I’m on my way. And I feel bully and I’m happy about it and boastfully proud.

Three rousing cheers for lithesome grace regained!


Jerry Seinfeld Experiment: Don’t break the chain. Post #42.

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